By Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., ABPP
About fifteen years ago, I began bringing Shira, my Portugese Water Dog, to the office, mostly so that she wouldn't be home alone all day. It soon became clear that she was exquisitely aware of the most subtle changes in the emotional temperature of the office. When patients were clam, she lay quietly next to me. When they were upset, she lay by them or licked their hands. And when there was a high degree of unexpressed conflict between spouses or partners, she paced. I thought I had stumbled on something unique until I remembered seeing photos of Freud's Chow, Jofi, and reading about how Freud would refer to Jofi in his interpretations. I am not aware of Freud referring to Jofi as a therapy dog or writing about animal assisted therapy. It seems clear, however, that he was ahead of his time in this as in other things.Today, my office furnishings reflect the diversity of my practice: a doll house for the very youngest, Legos and a bean bag chair for school age children, an electric guitar and amplifier for adolescents and young adults, an inviting ultrasuede sofa and a Monet poster for older adults. And for everybody, my not quite 2 year old Daschund mix, Sasha.
I chose Sasha from the shelter–although dog people would say that she chose me–partly with her future role as a therapy dog in mind. She is sociable and calm, and at 22 lbs is large enough not to be frightened by an excited 5-year-old yet compact enough to lie on the sofa next to an upset 14-year-old or on the lap of a lonely 44-year old.
She is more than just a living teddy bear, however. Many people are better able to tolerate the intense feelings that arise in therapy when Sasha is seated next to them. Sasha is especially helpful to my youngest patients: she gives them something to look forward to when they have na appointment; she offers the perfect metaphor for many childhood issues; she offers a level of unconditional positive regard about which a Rogerian might only dream.
I often talk with young patients about her as other therapists talk about dolls or puppets. For example, I may say, "Sometimes Sasha isn't sure if another dog will be friendly or not, so she goes up to them slowly." Or with a child who feels that there are too many parental demands, "Sasha sometimes doesn't feel like doing what I ask her to do." I rarely have to ask ,"Do you ever feel that way?" Children as young as 4 quickly form such a strong identification with the little dog that they make that connection on their own. In teaching young children to begin to relax and be aware of their feelings, I often suggest that they practice their meditation and mindfulness in the office with Sasha. If she lies quietly next to them, or better yet falls asleep, they are quick to tell me that she is doing a good job meditating, and of course they are too.
Adolescents often talk about Sasha when they are unable to talk directly about their feelings and concerns. When the therapeutic conversation starts to become too intense, adolescents can talk about Sasha's behavior, about their relationships with their pets, or about their longing to have a pet of their own. It's not difficult to segue back to the issues at hand. People's responses to Sasha can reveal a great deal. Some patients notice immediately if Sasha is lying in a different spot or seems less energetic than usual; others are far less aware of her being, just as they are less aware of other humans.
Sasha's response to the people in the office can reveal a lot too. Not long ago, I was talking with a young woman about a particularly painful relationship breakup. Sasha, who knows the young woman well, and usually cuddles up so closely to her that a piece of onion skin wouldn't slide between them, pawed at my leg, stared at me, vocalized, and gave a single bark, all as if to say, "Peter, for goodness sake, can't you see that she is in distress? Do something!" By the end of the hour both the young woman and Sasha were feeling better and Sasha had returned to her usual spot on the sofa next to her friend.
By Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., ABPP